Don’t let your emotions get in the way. Use these number-based guidelines to polish your work.
Imagine spending a year of your life building a house. Even though you started with a blueprint, you realize when you step back to look at your creation that the product came out all wrong. The doors are on sideways. The windows are backward. The stairs lead to nowhere. The walls are crooked and hey — were you maybe a little drunk when you poured the foundation?
Basically, the whole thing is a disaster.
Yes, it’s okay to bury your head in your hands for a few sad minutes…or months…or years. But eventually, you must square your shoulders and face the problem. If you want to live in the house, you need to dive into the mess you created and start over.
Welcome to the second draft of your novel.
The reality of your second draft
Get ready to work hard. The first draft of your book is most likely lightyears away from where the finished product will take you. There’s a reason why so many people that harbor dreams of publication never get there. It takes years of self-sacrifice and internal motivation. Starting your second draft means ripping apart the story you poured your heart and soul into, probably over the course of several months or even years.
The task of reworking your ideas to mold your first thoughts into a marketable work of fiction sets a tremor of doubt in even the most accomplished writers. The process of revision has inspired a litany of famous advice. My personal mantra comes in the excellent craft handbook “The Artful Edit” by Susan Bell. She writes:
There is a saying. Genius is perseverance. While genius does not consist entirely of editing, without editing it’s pretty useless. (Susan Bell, The Artful Edit)
As a science teacher, I like to use numbers and facts as inspiration during my editing process. It helps keep my emotions under control during this difficult component of writing. While I’m editing, I keep the following five figures in mind to guide my work.
Figure 1: The +10 Challenge
In your second draft, you are growing your story. It is likely fundamental changes will occur in the novel. During your editing process, you have complete freedom to change your setting, kill your darlings, and generally re-organize the thoughts on the page in a multitude of different ways.
As you read over your completed work, pay attention to the places where you start to lose the storyline. Challenge yourself to come up with at least ten changes you could make at that moment in the story.
Ask the following:
Why are the characters behaving the way they are at that moment in time? Do their actions make sense?
Could you incorporate a different event or a different ending to a given exchange?
Should you change the tone or the tension in the scene? How could it change? What are people fighting over or yearning for in this moment?
Is there a detail or a theme you can add to bring more depth to a given personality?
What dialogue or exposition could you use to develop the characters?
Use this challenge to get to know your characters better. Refer back to your character questionnaire, or start to fill one out if you haven’t already. Develop the possibilities for their backstories, their motivations, and the events that affect their lives as you write.
As you’re reviewing your draft, don’t be afraid to jot down a note that suggests a big change. It’s important to think out multiple possibilities for your story at this point in your writing. You don’t have to use every note you make. But this exercise will allow you to exercise your imagination to improve your plot.
Read through your work. When you come to a part of the story that isn’t reading well, jot down at least 10 ways you could change the scene.
Figure 2: 400%
At a Writer’s Digest conference in 2018, I overheard a conversation between two strangers waiting in line to get into an event. This conversation contained the most important writing advice I ever heard. It went something like this:
In order to write one good novel, you must be prepared to write four to five mediocre novels that contain some good ideas. Then you sift through to sew the best pieces together.
During the middle drafts of your novel, you will write a lot of scenes and ideas that you won’t use. That’s okay. In fact, that’s great. It means you will pick the best of the best for your final work.
Be prepared to write a lot as you approach the second draft. Don’t be scared or limit your ideas. Write every day and continue to see where the story might take you. In the words of Raymond Chandler:
“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”
Be ready to write at least 400% more than what will end up in your finished manuscript.
Figure 3: Pages per chapter
Generally speaking, the chapters in your book should be a uniform length. You may choose to throw in a short chapter occasionally to emphasize an idea or an event, but that emphasis will only work if the rest of the chapters feel consistent.
In my last manuscript, I decided to aim for a chapter-length of around six to eight pages. This meant between 2,000–3,000 words per chapter.
Once you know your chapter length, you can start to question the main action in each chapter. Ask the following questions:
How will the next 2,000 words push your story along?
Where does the chapter start and where does it end?
What is the main action?
Write out a short description of each chapter that answers the questions above. You can return to it as you edit your first draft to decide what cuts and additions you need.
Break your novel into roughly equal chapters. Jot down the main purpose for each chapter in your notes.
Figure 4: The 1/4 Turn
As you review the purpose of each chapter in your second draft, you also need to keep in mind the structure of your major plot points. Martha Alderson writes in her book ‘The Plot Whisperer’:
Four scenes more than any others control the energy of a story…What is truly important is that the energy of the story rises and falls in ways to keep the readers and audience engaged all the way to the end of your book.
At the end of each quarter of your novel, your main character should face a significant challenge. Ideally, each of these provocations will build tension in the plot and change the way your protagonist sees the world. These anxiety produced by these challenges for both the character and the audience should build throughout the novel.
Ask yourself as you read through your first draft which scenes really challenge your protagonist to change and develop their character. Use these events to inspire your major plot points in later drafts.
Organize your writing so there is a major turning point at each quarter of the story.
Figure 5: 0.5% success rate
More than anything, this last figure keeps me going. Whenever I encounter a plot problem or a difficulty in character development, I try to remember this:
The second draft is where most people give up.
According to the Huffington Post, about 80% of Americans say they would like to write a novel. In 2020, this means about 300 million people in the United States have some kind of aspiration towards writing. However, even when we include self-publishing platforms, there are only about one million books published in a typical year. This means the success rate for publication, even in a world where we can publish our own novels, hovers around 0.5%.
I use this statistic to remind myself of why I write. During the second draft, it’s important to return to the joy that writing brings into your life. Exercise your imagination and embrace the process.
Embrace the process and keep writing.
The second draft of your novel will challenge your story. Keep the following in mind to encourage yourself as you work through your thoughts.
- Give yourself time to review your ideas and count the time you spend thinking about your plot and character development as ‘working time’.
- Be kind to yourself and your ideas.
- Check-in yourself once a week or once a month and honestly consider how you are doing with meeting your writing deadlines. Keep setting deadlines so that you keep working towards your goals!
The most important thing to remember:
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler
If you use one of these tips or have any advice to add to this list, I would love to hear it! Please feel free to leave a comment below.
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